A Complacent Nation

This is the fourth month of 2020, and the Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) has inarguably been the global main theme of the first third of the year. The news about it seems to have virtually eclipsed every other issue in the world — both bad and good ones.

However, in Indonesia, the eclipse did not happen until at least the beginning of March, when the first two official cases were declared.

Not only did Indonesia seem ignorant to the explosion of coronavirus cases in the west, it also stayed nonchalant despite the positive case reports in the neighbouring countries, Singapore and Malaysia, who declared their firsts as early as on January 23rd and 25th, respectively.

At the same time, we might be quite overwhelmed by the multiple floods in Jakarta during January until February. It was also during this time, that complacent sentiments regarding coronavirus bloomed profusely.

Intended as humour, numerous memes poignantly expressed how Indonesians had already led an unhygienic lifestyle such that they were fortuitously immune to the coronavirus. Some of which pointed out that Indonesians, especially those affected by the Jakarta floods, could naturally survive even if they had to live surrounded by dirty water — including but not limited to brushing their teeth and washing their clothes using the flood water.

Unfortunately, the complacency did not stop just there: as if the people in the government, in a twisted way, sympathised with their citizens, they also grandiosely underestimated the virus.

In an instance that later would receive harsh critics, just several days before the first official cases were announced, Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, as reported in Tempo.co, religiously claim that the coronavirus steered clear from Indonesia because there were “many kyai and ulema who recite the qunut,” a particular supplication at Fajr prayers.

Granted, the aforementioned statement can be viewed as an optimistic surrender to God; but some other instances are quite hard to be taken comparably positively.

Coordinating Political, Legal and Human Rights Minister Mahfud MD, according to CNN Indonesia, in a bold remark, said that Indonesia was the only major country in Asia that had not had any coronavirus cases. It is worth noting that when he made this claim (February 7th), the test for Covid-19 was remotely far from comprehensive.

Another regretted statement came from Mr. Putranto, reported in The Jakarta Post, in which he dismissed as an insult a study by Harvard University public health researchers that found that Indonesia should have had unreported cases of Covid-19.

Preposterously, in this country, the underplaying of the issue went as far as joking about it, which, in hindsight, were highly inappropriate and arrogant.

Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi, according to Republika, even admitted that he and President Joko Widodo jeered that “Covid-19 won’t get into Indonesia because we eat nasi kucing every day, therefore [we are] immune”. Ironically, not thirty days later, Mr. Sumadi was diagnosed with Covid-19.

Another unnecessary quip came from the Head of the Investment Coordinating Board, Bahlil Lahadalia. As reported in OkeZone, to spice up his speech about how complex and difficult permissions and licencing were still a huge problem for investments in Indonesia, he threw in a remark that “the coronavirus does not get into Indonesia because the [process of getting a] licence is difficult.”

To top all these, as if to deliberately show how knowledgeable the government was about the coronavirus and the level of priority at which it put the issue, in the end of February, as reported in CNBC Indonesia, it offered 50% off flight tickets to ten domestic holiday destinations. Supposedly, this was done to entice travellers to visit these destinations as the industry was starting to be threatened by the coronavirus outbreak.

Not long after all these statements had been uttered, the table turned and the coronavirus had clearly overwhelmed and outmanoeuvred Indonesia. Even now, the nation was still reek of complacency.

Despite the tepid imposition of social distancing, Indonesians still felt that whatever happened and however dangerous it was, as long as it did not affect them, they had to go out and do their normal activities. While it is understandable for those who still had to live in a day-by-day basis, some massive corporations and factories seemed to care more about productivity, and still requiring their employees to work diligently.

Within two weeks of superficial social distancing, another recommendation was declared: to not do the Eid al-Fitr exodus; in hope to not spread the disease even more pervasively. Predictably, given the ingrained tradition of the annual exodus, it was extremely hard to confine the homesick travellers from the homebound journey. In the end of March, despite Governor Ganjar Pranowo’s humble plea for the wanderers not to go to their hometown in Central Java, eighty thousand people had entered the province, according to Tempo.co.

People might have thought that the first red flag was case #1 and #2, but it is now obvious that we should have been wary the first time a case was reported outside China. The warnings were all there: the study from researchers of a leading global university, the positive cases in Malaysia and Singapore, the exponentially-growing death toll.

In retrospect, it is not too farfetched to speculate that had we taken this outbreak seriously in the beginning, we could have had a head start to mitigate the impending catastrophe we are in now.

There is a fine but obvious line separating optimism and complacency, and it seems that we have crossed it. At the time of the writing, Indonesia’s fatality rate (FR) is about twice the global FR; making it the highest in Southeast Asia. Thankfully enough, the government has shown a better performance, although some may still deem it belittled.

Indonesia learnt it the hard way: that humans were much more insignificant than they had thought, that national calamities could come even from tiny and invisible things, and that it clearly had impediment in its public understanding of science.

This piece was originally written for submission to The Jakarta Post on the end of March. Unfortunately, I never received any reply afterwards. I guess it didn’t meet their minimum requirement. So I decided to just post it here.

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